Sleepers Through Time

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

A distant steam whistle, a piercing headlight, billowing clouds of smoke and the hiss of steam as cylinders stroke massive drive wheels were the sights and sounds of an approaching steam powered railroad locomotive. The sleepers rested quietly below, supporting the steel rails.

An idea was born in 1832 when Robert Stevens, the president and chief engineer of the Camden and Amboy Railroad of New Jersey, ran out of stone blocks on which to mount the rails. As a substitute material, ties were hand hewn from logs cut from nearby forests. Later, it was noticed that the wood ties provided a smoother ride, and wood has now been used for ties for over 160 years.

From the small narrow gauge engines that pulled logging and mining cars to the giant steamers built to pull mile-long freights, railroads ran on steel rails. Wood railroad ties, called sleepers, secured the track and provided a level base, holding the rails firmly and keeping them parallel.

As railroads were pushing westward in the 1800s, a continuous supply of ties was needed to not only maintain track, but to pioneer the routes across the prairie. To railroad men, Missouri forests were strategically located, as few sources for wood existed until reaching the Front Range forests of the Rockies. Men called tie hackers literally cut 300-pound ties out of the Ozark forests. They described their trade as "a hard way to serve the Lord."

Tie hewers depended on specialized tools for their work, including a two man crosscut saw called Old Gappy, a double-bit axe, a broad axe, a measuring device called a tie scantling, a mule for skidding logs and a small quantity of coal oil for removing resin and gums from the saw blade.

Dinner was also packed along, because working in the forest was an all day affair, requiring lots of hard work. A Mason jar, covered in a tow sack and wrapped with a string, kept the hacker's water cool. A lard bucket protected his lunch, which often consisted of beans, fried pork, cornbread and an onion. He either walked or rode the mule to the work area.

Trees selected for ties had straight grain but were not too large in diameter, usually 11 to 13 inches, at the small end of the log. The trees selected had to be free of rot and holes. Logs that were too large in diameter yielded

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